Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures
Apr 6, 2021
The History of The Albums – n°319

I also advise you to read my previous review on Cecil Taylor Quartet's Looking Ahead (1959), in order to better understand its beginnings and this one]. According to me I would define the history of Free Jazz in 3 distinct waves, the first one that we often classify under the term Avant-Garde Jazz from the beginning of the 50's to 1958 that can be qualified as prototype and experimentation of free improvisation and total destructuring of compositions against the "Bop" model. Of course, there are some works of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus or the very neglected Stan Kenton. Obviously it is difficult during this first wave to find a lot of high quality content, especially when the artists are really experimenting with new formulas, while on the other hand one finds a lot more excellent dazzle scattered within a more "conventional" composition. At the same time, each inventor has faced multiple failures before finding the right formula or the perfect product. Especially when you have to put things in context, when avant-garde jazzmen have been criticized by the public and their peers for trying to offer different content. In my opinion, although the projects of the first wave have undeniable flaws and limitations, I think that all the negative context for them have led to bad opinions and even to this day, regarding them. Cecil Taylor is one of the examples of this phenomenon, I still think that Looking Ahead is a very underestimated album, as well as Ornette Coleman's first "Something Else!!!! ". One thing is for sure, it is that a lot of the first wave pioneers will succeed in doing better afterwards. The second wave arrives in my opinion with the arrival of Ornette Coleman in 1958. He (almost) single-handedly transformed Free Jazz by giving it a superior dimension, but in addition to that he will end up democratizing it after a few years of effort. And then comes the 3rd wave, from 1961 and which extends until the end of the 60s. Yes the 3rd wave is surely the most interesting and the richest since there is an absolutely incredible scene which will mark the history of the music, beyond the Jazz of him even. It is thus not surprising to see Cecil Taylor, delivered according to me his best studio work in 1966, when the Free Jazz seems to be at its peak.

From the end of the 50's to the middle of the 60's, Cecil Taylor went from being a boring and too eccentric jazzman according to most people (listeners, bar and club owners or even the artists themselves) to the true recognition he deserved from the beginning. It is undeniable to say that it is not thanks to him that Free Jazz and Avant-Garde Jazz have been democratized by the public, but he has contributed a lot. Cecil Taylor managed to build himself up and to acquire this notoriety over the years. Just imagine for a second, that this jazzman was almost never a sideman, always relying on himself and following his own projects. It's not surprising that his only 2 sideman works before Unit Structures were with John Coltrane in 1958 (who always understood everything in advance) or Gil Evans in 1961, an important figure in jazz. Other than that, you can look, there is nothing else. No, instead he worked relentlessly and without abdicating, knowing that he had a string of one-shot label experiments because commercially nobody believed in him. However, he continued to improve year after year, from concert to concert, and planted little seeds that other jazzmen would harvest without being seen for years. In the early 60's, he ended up signing with Candid, a very respectable jazz label with which he recorded and released albums such as The World of Cecil Taylor (in 1961), a major piece of Avant-Garde Jazz and Free Jazz, but his poor commercial success forced him to release very few albums afterwards. Fortunately, the legendary Blue Note label decided to take him under its wing in 1966 for a few sessions, which gave birth to Unit Structures.

Recorded in May 1966, Unit Structures is undeniably a major piece of Free Jazz. After a series of live performances with experimental formations, Cecil Taylor decides on Unit Structures to densify his formation with a septet by doubling some instruments as he had already done during some live performances at the beginning of the 60's and probably by following the last works of John Coltrane, notably on Meditations. This technique allows of course to hear and multiply the possibilities of various interactions/sounds. Once again we can say that Cecil Taylor was one of the precursors on this. Unlike Meditations based on the doubling of the drummers and the tenor saxophone, Unit Structures proposes 2 double bassists with Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, and 2 alto saxophonists with Jimmy Lyons and Ken McIntyre, articulated around the main role of the piano. To support also the pianist Cecil Taylor, we find Eddie Gale on trumpet and Andrew Cyrille on drums. This marks a radical change both in the formation and in the members who composed it since Cecil Taylor who had long worked with Archie Shepp, Buell Neidlinger or Billy Higgins, sees the arrival of a future and long collaboration with the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. If intensity and density are the 2 factors that characterize Unit Structures the most, as if a high speed train releasing a quantity of virtuosity per second was absolutely unstoppable, this masterpiece is not only about that. Indeed the ultra rhythmic opening composition "Steps" rudely led by Cecil Taylor's extravagance and ruthless piano technique, sounds like explosions on repeat as often as not. But when you get to Enter Evening (Soft Line Structures), Unit Structures takes another turn. Based on a progressive and abstract construction often contemplative, the septet offers a different face, close to something volatile and unpredictable. The same amount of complexity is reached between the first and the second track, while the rhythm is absolutely opposite. Even when we observe some accelerations, the septet immediately switches to the appeasement in order to maintain this oppressive aesthetic. One can even contemplate these moments of silence. Enter Evening is a bit like a bird in a cage, an attack on total freedom, leading to a limited freedom that can only show the madness of the imprisoned animal. The second side begins with Unit Structure/As of a Now/Section which can be defined as a point of balance between Steps and Enter Evening, that is to say a progressive and evolving composition alternating between aggressive density and minimalism through oppression. This one remains less complex and ambitious than Enter Evening, but nevertheless the global content sounds like a better success, notably helped by an intelligent construction and a more sophisticated control of the septet. Not to be underestimated is Tales (8 Whips), although I think it's the weakest composition on Unit Structures compared to the others. Again the septet breaks the rules and conventions, pushing the artistic freedom to a high level. One feels all the virtuosity and personal touch of Cecil Taylor, very often alone on this composition, while the others intervene in a strategic and minimalist way bringing the additional element allowing the piano of Taylor to shine. To conclude, if this masterpiece counts among the major albums of Free Jazz, it is not only by the value of its content, it is also because it is unique and sounds like very few other album. Its only flaw is that due to the originality of Cecil Taylor's sound signature, this album remains very complex and difficult to make it accessible and understandable by a majority of listeners. That is to say that one can easily be put off by its content
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